Recently, an admin from LGBTQ+ of FIRST interviewed Tim’m West about LGBTQ+ representation and education in schools. Here’s what he had to say:
Please give a short introduction for people who may not know you.
My name is Tim’m West; professionally and formally I lead Teach For America’s LGBTQ Community initiative. I am a longtime educator, youth advocate, and on the side I do some poetry and hip hop.
What brought you to LGBTQ+ activism?
I think namely my own personal experience. I grew up a queer kid in the 80’s in southwest Arkansas, and, for me, there weren’t positive queer role models. The only mentions of LGBTQ were negative. For me, the dearth of mirrors to see myself, the absence of LGBTQ people made a difference in how I saw myself. It made me want to teach. I felt that as a teacher I could contribute to making schools a space where students did see you and see that a black queer accomplished man existed and feel you are pretty awesome for that truth. Beyond teaching, that was really important work to do where representation is concerned.
I went to school to study philosophy. I thought I would be a college professor, but I ended up leaving my PhD program, and I had two Masters degrees in rather obscure humanities areas, if at good institutions (The New School, Stanford). I got a job running an English department in a high school, so I fell into teaching youth and supporting their academic and social emotional development. Being around youth and understanding their challenges encouraged me to be a better example for them by bringing myself more fully into educational spaces. I have done that in schools as a man who is queer, and I have done that in schools as a man who is HIV positive, which sometimes leads to pushback like, “ooh students don’t need to know that about your personal life”. Still, I’ve taught in places that have high HIV incidence and prevalence. I’d be remiss not to share my own personal experience with them as a way of motivating sexual and emotional safety.
What do you see as being the value of LGBTQ+ representation in schools in terms of the teachers?
There’s been a lot of data [on the effects of representation], though not a lot of it has been done on the LGBTQ community. For example, in the African American community—and I can say this as an African American who had maybe one African American male teacher in all my schooling—it affected me to not seeing myself represented among the people who are teaching. There have been recent studies that show that students who see themselves represented do better. It’s connected to the reality that less than 2% of teachers in the US are African American men. Yet we know the representation of black boys in public schools is far higher. It actually just creates a situation where people who might be able to best connect and reach students aren’t present.
Ultimately, it’s not to say a student can’t learn from anybody, but I think identity and how people see themselves is shaped by those who teach them. So if you’re LGBTQ and you don’t see any teachers or administrators identify that way, it sends a message, an implicit message that you LGBTQ people don’t belong in the places entrusted with our learning; or that if they exist in that space, they’d better be quiet about it. I think connotes a problematic idea of shame; that being LGBTQ is not something that you should be proud of.
Being out as a queer teacher is not about the material being any different. What harm is there in knowing that a science or history teacher might be LGBTQ just as we know or assume our teachers are straight? One’s orientation might actually inform something unique about their approaches to teaching or world view. I think that’s important for students to see and experience.
How can LGBTQ+ lessons be integrated into the classroom?
I have an interesting belief in this, because I don’t believe that LGBTQ issues should be brought into the class independent of the need for rigorous content. By having an LGBTQ lesson, you’re tokenizing our identity as opposed to normalizing our identity. Why, if you’re talking about quantum physics, and let’s just say an important person in that field happens to be LGBTQ, is it a bad thing to mention that in the context of their innovation? It might be interesting for people to know that. If you’re looking at biology for example, why can’t there be discussions about gender or intersex people, or the myth that XX and XY pairings are the only and there isn’t biological and chromosomal diversity beyond that? It’s just bad science. There are ways to talk about LGBTQ issues and ideas that are not tokenistic. Content and culture can enable strong learning and aren’t oppositional. We don’t have to say: “let’s take a break from our real work and talk about LGBTQ people”. I’d say the same thing about exposure to different cultures; it’s not helpful to say: “let’s talk about black people for 10 minutes”.
What are the major roadblocks to LGBTQ+ education in schools?
I think you have different generations of people that haven’t had the exposure. Often, what I find in schools is that it’s not predominantly students who are creating difficult challenges for queer and transgender kids, it’s the teachers who have been there forever who refuse to divorce their personal biases from their teaching.
A good example of that is when I taught rhetoric at a conservative school in suburban Texas, and I had to help students write anti-gay marriage papers. Did I like to do that? No. But it was my job as a teacher to help them question their beliefs and, sometimes, help them craft as strong an argument as possible against something I felt strongly about. It’s not my job to convince my students to believe the way I do. It is my job to create a safe arena for the development and maturation of students’ opinions and thoughts. The role of a strong teacher in school is to create that setting and environment. Unfortunately, according to the data we see, LGBTQ students are not safe in high schools. They face a lot more harassment, they drop out at higher rates, truancy rates are higher, any number of indicators.
How can non-LGBTQ+ teachers be good allies?
I think one not to hypervisibilize LGBT students by treating them different that others, but to truly be committed to creating a classroom environment where ALL students feel like they have something to contribute to the class. Some of that is about intentionality and exposure. In your curriculum, is there something that can speak to the diverse background and experiences in class? Teachers who do that really well are really appreciated by students. It’s like, “oh wow — this is not just about the specific academic topic, but we’re also learning about ourselves and the people around us.” It’s important for student development.
Otherwise, teachers should be good allies to queer and trans kids because it’s their job (that’s the smart-ass answer). It’s not about whether or not you want to support LGBTQ students. As a teacher, should be fully committed to the education of your students. Truly being committed means that you advance a classroom culture where anti-LGBTQ microagressions aren’t tolerated; where all students feel safe in your class and not harassed, because that can ultimately impact their ability to learn well. Students feeling safe to learn, or not, is a reflection on you as a teacher.